Jennifer Jason Leigh

Jennifer Jason Leigh



Photography: Doug Inglish

Styling: Maryam Malakpour

Text: Patrik Sandberg

“This was coming at a time in all our lives where you just don’t take things for granted like this, you know?”

Jennifer Jason Leigh is recalling October of last year, when she was announced as the lead female role in Quentin Tarantino’s rabidly anticipated highbrow grindhouse western, The Hateful Eight. By this point, the film’s development was already the stuff of motion picture legend: in January 2014, two months after Tarantino announced the project, the script leaked online, prompting him to swiftly cancel the production in favor of turning it into a novel, blaming agents at CAA for the snafu. But following a successful public reading of the script in L.A., he decided it would be too much of a missed opportunity not to see the feature through.

“Quentin asked me to audition, so I went and picked up the script and read up, but it was missing the final chapter,” the 53-year-old actress recalls. When she went to Tarantino’s house to audition, the two of them read from the final five pages she had yet to learn. “Usually, as an actor, when you read for the director you read with either a casting director or another actor who’s termed a ‘reader,’ but Quentin doesn’t do that. You sit next to him on the couch, he holds the script, and you read it together. Already half the nerves that would be present get taken away. You’re giving it all you have, of course, because you want to do a great job for him, but you don’t have the same nerves as if he’s sitting opposite you, watching you. He’s participating in it with you and you’re having the experience with him…I think it’s just an example of his thoughtfulness and an example of how he gets the best out of everyone, because he really does.”

Though Jennifer Lawrence had been rumored to be playing the wild-eyed hangman’s prisoner, Daisy Domergue, Leigh reportedly beat out actresses like Robin Wright, Demi Moore, Michelle Williams, and Hilary Swank for the role. For her part, the Hollywood veteran remains humbled by the experience. “I was just so excited to even have the opportunity to read for it.”

Though widely regarded as one of the most respected actresses of her generation, having carved out a singular career since the early ’80s in films as indelible as Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Single White Female, Last Exit to Brooklyn, Short Cuts, and The Hudsucker Proxy, to name a few; recent years found Leigh taking smaller roles in ensemble indie flicks, alongside a couple of recurring (and scene-stealing) turns on the TV dramas Weeds and Revenge. Leave it to Tarantino, known for reviving interest in some of the industry’s slumbering giants, to put the actress back in marquee billing where she belongs. (Stars like John Travolta, Harvey Keitel, Christopher Walken, Daryl Hannah, and Pam Grier have all benefited from the “QT Assist” in projects past.)

Besides Leigh, the titular Eight includes Kurt Russell, Walton Goggins, and Demián Bichir, alongside Tarantino favorites Samuel L. Jackson, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, and Bruce Dern. “Everybody just falls in love with him,” she says of Tarantino. “He has so much enthusiasm and energy and love and care for what he’s doing, and he works so damn hard, that you want to be there for him 100 percent.” Considering that both Tarantino and Leigh gravitate toward troubled characters in dangerous situations with a raw emotional edge, it’s almost hard to believe this film was their first gig together. “It was even better than you can imagine,” Leigh says. “Honestly, I’ve never seen so many grown men cry as they did on their last days of shooting. When it was like, ‘Okay, that’s a good-bye to Samuel L. Jackson,’ and ‘that’s a good-bye to Walton Goggins,’ everybody made a speech. Everybody cried, because it’s the best experience any of us will probably ever have.”

If it sounds like a form of cinematic Stockholm syndrome, it’s worth considering the plot of the film: eight westerners hole up in an alpine haberdashery during a blizzard to wait out a storm. If the trailer for the film is an indication, not all of them make it out alive. Leigh’s character, Daisy “the Prisoner,” spends the entirety of the film handcuffed to her captor, John “the Hangman” Ruth, played by Russell. “We were cuffed together for six months,” she laughs. “It’s a long time! But then again, if you have to be cuffed to someone I would say Kurt Russell is the number one. He knows how to throw a punch, so I never had to worry about getting hurt. I sort of had that thing where I missed being cuffed when I wasn’t, you know?”

A few of the Hangman’s punches in the film, however, are aimed squarely at Daisy, who takes violent blows to the face—along with reminders of her pending execution—with a demented level of glee. “She’s quite feral,” Leigh says of Daisy. “You know the term ‘crazy like a fox’? I mean, she’s really street-smart and she’ll do just about anything to survive. The stakes are really high but at the same time there’s absolutely nothing to lose. She can take it. She’s going to be hanged, you know? So what’s a smack in the face? She doesn’t want to cry. She’s not going to give anybody that.”

As luck would have it, this winter sees another prestige Jennifer Jason Leigh picture hitting theaters: the emotionally poignant stop-motion-animated Anomalisa, written and co-directed by Charlie Kaufman. (Leigh formerly worked with Kaufman on the sprawling and underrated cult drama Synechdoche, New York.) Having originated as a voice-only radio play by Kaufman and Carter Burwell 10 years ago this year, the film version eventually found financing via Kickstarter. This September, it walked away with the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival. With a 99 Metacritic score, it’s being hailed by critics as “a minor miracle on multiple levels,” “extraordinarily wise,” “soaringly romantic,” and “truly sad.” The film revolves around a customer service expert convinced that everybody in the world is exactly the same, until he meets Lisa (voiced by Leigh), who lifts him out of the mundanity of his life. Leigh voices one of two leads in a cast of three. (David Thewlis voices the other, and character actor Tom Noonan voices everybody else.) “I’m in it, and I can’t get over it,” Leigh says. “The experience is almost like seeing a film for the first time. You can’t believe what Charlie was able to do. It’s so real, but it’s puppets. You can see the lines where they connect, where the heads connect to the bodies, and yet you completely forget that they’re puppets. And then you remember they’re puppets, and then you forget again. You keep getting drawn in, and because they are puppets you project yourself into it in a way that you can’t with an actor. It’s surreal, like you are discovering cinema, in a way.”

This openness to new possibilities in moviemaking is refreshing coming from someone who’s been in the business for more than 30 years, and it appears to be paying off: Leigh just signed on to play Lady Bird Johnson opposite Woody Harrelson in Rob Reiner’s upcoming biopic of the 36th President of the United States. It’s another plum lead in a star-studded cast, an opportunity Leigh appreciates more than ever with a multifarious career in her rear view. Looking back on her breakthrough in Ridgemont High, the actress laughs about her difference in terms of self-awareness. “We knew nothing!” she says. “Of course it was this big hit and a phenomenon and you just think, Oh, that’s the way movies are. They come out and they’re big hits. That’s what happens. But we were so naive on so many levels. Then it doesn’t happen again, and you realize, Oh, maybe that is a rare experience. That doesn’t happen all the time. We really took everything for granted.”

Credits: Makeup Kristina Brown (Jed Root)  Hair Candice Birns (Only)  Manicure Tracey Sutter (Cloutier Remi)  Digital technician Maxfield Hegedus  Photo assistant Michael Clifford  Stylist assistants Mia Fernandez and Fernando Pichardo


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